Today, March 17, 2015, the National Library of Medicine held a special event, “A Tribute to Marshall Nirenberg,” the first of a “triplet” of events at NIH being held to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his deciphering of the genetic code. View the event here. The program included presentations from his wife, Dr. Myrna Weissman, scholars, and Library staff. Circulating Now interviewed the presenters and today we hear from Dr. Frank Portugal.
Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do?
Frank Portugal: Like Marshall, I am originally from New York City. I graduated from the Columbia University College of Pharmacy and later received a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Illinois. I then came to NIH to gain further research experience in Marshall’s laboratory.
I currently direct a Master’s degree program in biotechnology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. As part of the program, students take customized internships, many of which have been done at NIH. In addition, at The Catholic University of America, I also do research on interfering with the growth of human pathogens, such as Staphylococcus aureus.
CN: You’ve recently written a book, The Least Likely Man: Marshall Nirenberg and the Discovery of the Genetic Code. What made you want to write this book now?
FP: Several factors led me to write this book. First, my admiration and appreciation of Marshall both as a scientist and person. Marshall gave my scientific career an extraordinary boost both professionally by accepting me in his laboratory and personally by exposing me to his work habits and values.
Second, Marshall’s life and scientific career contain unusual elements. Marshall himself might have become an invalid or died as a result of getting rheumatic fever. But he managed to overcome any disability. Just out of graduate school, Marshall faced competition in deciphering the genetic code. Some twenty world famous scientists formed a private club for the same purpose. I have never before heard of scientists forming a private club for solving a major scientific problem and keeping others out. Marshall was never admitted into the club.
Third is a concern that Marshall’s accomplishments have been overlooked. This may be partly due to Marshall’s modest demeanor, but not entirely. What or who else might also be responsible for his obscurity?
CN: A biography requires an extensive amount of research, of course. What resources did you find most helpful in your work?
FP: Notebooks in Marshall’s collected papers in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine formed the core resource for the book. These notebooks gave me an unusual insight into how Marshall’s thinking evolved about the genetic code. Interviews with people ranging from Marshall’s family and friends who knew him at various stages of his life to those who worked with him at the National Institutes of Health also provided key details and contributions.
CN: What’s your favorite story from your research on Nirenberg’s life and work?
FP: In the 1960s, the United States was involved in two wars: the Cold War and the Vietnam War. In Washington, Marshall presented on the code. The presentation ended. A strikingly beautiful young woman came up. That should not be a surprise, for Marshall was a handsome man. The Least Likely Man tells of his handsomeness.
The young woman spoke with a slight accent. She invited Marshall to join her for lunch. “Why,” Marshall wanted to know?
She was deeply interested in learning more about the code.
Sensing Marshall’s reluctance, she then added, “After lunch, we can get a hotel room.”
For some men, perhaps a tempting offer. But not for Marshall. Marshall always conveyed a strong sense of morality and ethics. And so he gracefully declined.
But that’s NOT the end of story.
The Cold War continued. Marshall learned more about this woman. She was with the Russian Embassy. She was a Russian spy.
She heard about his talk of a code. She assumed it had military value.
She missed the point that it is a “genetic” code.
CN: On this 50th anniversary of Nirenberg’s discovery what would you like readers to understand about the impact of his work?
FP: Determining the entire sequence of the human genome would have been a hollow victory had Marshall not provided the genetic data that has enabled scientists to decode the sequence. Similarly, mutations that cause disorders and disease, such as cancer, could not be interpreted without the genetic code. And, finally, the code that Marshall deciphered has now enabled synthetic biologists to expand the applications from coding for 20 amino acids to coding for 172 amino acids. It may now be possible to synthesize novel proteins with targeted health or industrial applications.
Stay tuned all this week as Circulating Now brings you interviews with the presenters of “A Tribute to Marshall Nirenberg.”
This article is part of a series that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Genetic Code Charts. Stay tuned throughout the year to learn more about Marshall Nirenberg and these groundbreaking documents.